Saturday, January 31, 2009

Introducing . . . (drum roll please)

Gwendolyn Hope!
Our first child and daughter. Let's get on to the important stuff: pictures.

Here's Gwendolyn fresh out of the womb, entering the bright world of light and plastic gloves:

Here's Gwendolyn with Grandma Wheat:
Here's Gwendolyn with Aunt Sharon:
Here's Gwendolyn practicing her stage presence. "And then my aria began with, Aaaaaah, mi amoreeeeee!"

Here's Gwendolyn looking not so happy to be in her carseat:

Now, what I think is really going on in this photo is as follows. The hat she's wearing was woven by some lovely ladies at Lourdes hospital, whose task it is to make sure that newborns leave the ward warm and in style. But see that tassle at the top of her toque? That reminds me of the helmets worn by Mongol warriors when the Khans ruled most of the steppes of Asia. So I think that this hat really transforms Gwendolyn into the Queen of the Mongol Hordes. But what Mongol Queen would ever succumb to the indignity of being strapped into a carseat? None, I tell you. And Gwendolyn knows it.

What's missing? Oh, yeah. Pictures of Gwendolyn with Sara and me. More on that coming. We know that pics of Gwendolyn were infinitely more important to you. Enjoy!


Thursday, January 29, 2009


It looks like someone else was ready, just as Sara was . . .



I thought the most ragged emotional part of labor would be anger. Birthing labor includes, of course, pain; however, pain is not an emotion. Pain begets emotion. It can bear sadness, anger, or any of the emotions latent within the human heart. And I thought that when my wife began to experience real pain in labor, the emotion I'd experience from her would be anger.

I blame this expectation on the expert storytelling abilities of Bill Cosby.

"You did this to me!" Cosby would scream during his stand-up routine, twisting his face into the raging visage of a woman who would never allow her husband to touch her again. "Get away from me!" his wife would scream at the would-be coach, in a moment sealing up years of intimacy with the hot brand of anger. So I thought that the nurses at Lourdes would witness the sworn end of our marriage right.

I was wrong. The dominant emotion that I experienced at the bedside during Sara's labor was not anger. It was fear.

As the contractions got worse, I saw in Sara's eyes no blame, no rage, no threat to grind up the family jewels. I saw fear: fear of the contraction that was about to start, fear of the indescribable pain that was erupting from inside her body, and worst of all the fear that perhaps the pain was going to be too much.

I think I could have taken the anger. I can take it, and I can give it back (all in the name of coaching, you understand). But to see the face I have loved for seven years contorted with pain and agonizing fear, I felt myself begin to break. Fear was too much. I began to weep with her.

It's hard to coach someone through labor when you can't see through the tears. So I had to turn away from the bed long enough to wipe my eyes and blow my nose. What good would it do for Sara to see me crying when she needed to get through her own pain?

Our "plan" for the birth was to go drug-free. The downsides of using drugs seemed to outweigh the benefits, so our intent was to tough it out. When the terrifying pain got to be so much that Sara herself doubted if she could make it through, I finally understood the allure of an epidural. If she had asked for it, I don't know if I could have coached her not to do so--I don't know if I could have endured her fear enough to coach her without the painkiller.

When the nursing staff offered pain killers, I reached a real threshold. I was pushed to the limit of my experience, into a dark and cold corner of the universe: the place of gut-wrenching pain and the attraction of release. In that place, where I saw the real terrible fear of my wife in the hardest work of her life, I found a place where people like us--so resolute in theory--would do anything to stop the pain.

My first thought was that this is not fair. I know that birthpangs are the inheritance of women through all generations of humanity (Genesis 3--not to mention most human experience). But it doesn't seem fair. This thought didn't last long, however.

In its quest to make sense of experience, to be able to describe, use, and categorize the world, my mind went to another place, another idea. As strange as it seems now to write about it, while my body stood at that bedside and my voice urged Sara through the transition toward birth, my mind went to an intellectual refuge. It started with my internal observation as I watched Sara and held her hand: this is like watching . . . torture.

Torture, as I understand it, is the process of inflicting indescribable pain, while offering the relief of that pain, in order to coerce. For a moment, the nurses coming into the room, offering phentanol and statin and epidurals, appeared to me like a dispassionate Jack Bauer from 24, offering an opportunity to end the pain. All one has to do is say Yes.

Indescribable pain is inhuman. Part of human experience is to be able to tell stories about our ordeals. But pain that defies words cannot be told of in story. It is so consuming and mind-altering that we cannot describe it. I have yet to meet a mother who can (or will?) describe the pain of childbirth. Childbirth, however, comes with a resultant child, whose appearance makes all the pain worth it. 

Torture is different.

Torture is inflicting pain on someone else--pain which will be so extreme that they cannot describe it later--without any resultant benefit to the sufferer. All that exists is the hope for an end to the pain, dangled paradoxically by the the one who inflicted the pain in the first place. Why would someone inflict, willingly, that kind of pain on another human being, then withold the solution? That someone must have placed something in a higher rank of importance than humanity; or determined that the victim of torture is no longer classified as human.
Either way, the use of torture must, on some level, destroy the humanity of those involved.

That's where my mind went during the transition phase. Perhaps the mental rabbit trail kept me from breaking up; perhaps the small refuge of terrible reflection gave me just enough stamina to hold my wife's hand through the worst part of labor. But I came back--back to witness the excruciation that visited her between phentanol-induced slumbers--and held back my own tears so that we could get to the final stage: pushing.

Her pushing stretched the limits of her endurance, just like mine had been pushed as a witness to the pain and fear. But her pushing had a greater human goal, something more than just the relief of pain that, by itself, seems unfair and senseless. She birthed into the world a new life, a new promise, a new hope: our little Gwendolyn Hope.

I hope it's a while before we have to go through that again. And maybe next time she'll threaten some part of my anatomy--I think it would be easier that way (thanks, Bill). Or perhaps this experience, now told in story, will prepare me for the next time. Until then, we're going to enjoy the fruit of labor: abundant life.


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Waiting for Baby

January has been spent waiting for baby.  Early signs of intense “warm-up” labor gave me hope that Baby would come early.  After all, my brothers and I were all three weeks early for my mom- it was a reasonable hope.  I clung to my hope while the air around me was filled with the voices of all the moms whose children, especially their firsts, were late.  I clung to my hope as the false – I mean “warm-up”--labor continued, all month long.

I've declared that "I'm ready" for Baby for the last 3 weeks, because I was.  Many told me I wasn't because I hadn’t dropped, because my sides hadn’t filled out, because I wasn’t “big enough”, because, because, because.  But I was ready like a chaperone after an all-night lock-in is ready to go to sleep once the kids have all gone home.  I’m ready to hold the baby in my arms, not my abs.  I’m ready to share the baby with Emrys and our friends and families.  Not just the occasional kicking spurts, but the warm little wiggly person.  I’m ready to meet this Little One and have a face and a name to the kicks and wiggles and growing belly I’ve had with me for the last 9 months.  

 Now it’s two days past the due date and we’re waiting.  Friends and family in the internet nebula pass along their tricks that made their baby come.  If it’s on the Top-10 list for getting baby to come, we’ve tried.  I’ve tried walking, cleaning, walking some more.  I’ve vetoed the spicy food option since spicy food and I don’t get along well to start with.  My to-do list is cleared, my project list a semi-clean slate.  The crib is in place, the bags are in the back of the car and there’s a snowstorm predicted for tonight into tomorrow. 

 So I pick up my latest for-fun crochet project (which is turning out really, really cool and will be blogged after it’s gifted), sit back and wait.   I already went out in the freezing cold morning and walked around the track that the snowmobiles have made at General Clinton Park in Bainbridge, then walked all over the grocery store since it’s not one where I’m a regular.   And tomorrow, I may walk in the fresh snow, if we’re still waiting…

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Ballots and Bullets

From President Obama's Inauguration ceremony: the introductory address by Senator Dianne Feinstein:

And an excerpt of the transcript:
"The freedom of a people to choose its leaders is the root of liberty. In a world where political strife is too often settled with violence, we come here every four years to bestow the power of the presidency upon our democratically elected leader. Those who doubt the supremacy of the ballot over the bullet can never diminish the power engendered by nonviolent struggles for justice and equality, like the one that made this day possible. No triumph tainted by brutality could ever match the sweet victory of this hour and what it means to those who marched and died to make it a reality. Our work is not yet finished, but future generations will mark this morning as the turning point for real and necessary change in our nation. They will look back and remember that this was the moment wehn the dream that once echoed across history, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial finally reached the walls of the White House."

It seems clear to me that Senator Feinstein is attempting to build a rhetorical monument to President Obama as a descendent of the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet I am hooked by an inherent paradox within the address--and in the text above quoted. We cannot blame Senator Feinstein for this troublesome paradox, for she did not invent it. This paradox has always, and for some time will always, exist.

She calls us to celebrate, properly, the peaceful transition of power between presidents, and especially the peaceful rise to power of a president with darker skin. The fact that President Obama did not have to raise a White House coup d'etat in order to take office is an astonishing thing in the grand history of the world. As Senator Feinstein beckons us to festivity, she implicitly decries "those who doubt the supremacy of ballot over bullet," as if to say, the ballot is stronger than the bullet. In other words, this freedom we have to choose our leaders is a stronger agent of political change than what bullets can achieve.

This is not so, strictly speaking. Senator Feinstein (or her speechwriter) knows it, for it is revealed in the first sentence transcribed above: "The freedom of a people to choose its leaders is the root of liberty." By application of a thesaurus, we translate: freedom is the root of freedom. This is a tautology: a circular statement at best and at worst one devoid of meaning. In fact, bullets are at the root of freedom--or, more broadly, power is at the root of freedom.

This nation was born not because people wanted to be free and decided to vote, but because they mustered the power and ammunition to drive off another master. Enemies of freedom (whoever they are) must be held at bay by power, power used or power threatened. This is the human condition. Let us not diminish the great virtue of nonviolent change--such as that which brought about the civil rights movement that is now part of our history--let us embrace it. But let us also recognize that without the bullet the ballot has no place. Without weapons of war defending the fringes where chaos looms--and destroying its agents--the heartland cannot know peace.

Another great speaker, Jack Nicholson, playing the part of Colonel Jessop in A Few Good Men, recalled this important fact about human society: in order for Americans to sleep peacefully at night, there must be men with guns standing watch on the walls. And those guns must have bullets.

What a great sight to have two skin colors appear in photographs of U.S. presidents! I do not know how Thomas Jefferson would respond, had some prophet told him of this day. I do suspect that Martin Luther King, Jr. would beam with pride for what the Lord has done in us, and what the people have done in the last thirty years. We ought to celebrate. But as Americans, ought we not to celebrate the ballot and the bullet? For where would this nation be without both?


Historical Fractal

I found a tidbit that hooked me today. I'll share this piece of analysis with you, but I'm going to take out the name of the body of which it speaks. I'm doing this not to protect the innocent (they have no need of that), but instead to inspire wonder, as I have felt, at how generally this description might apply. Here it is, with italicized portions representing adjustments for anonymity:

"The economic organization of the country had one goal—the enrichment of their heartland and in particular the seat of government. The leaders had no interest in the economic development of the outlying regions. So long as these conquered territories contributed annual tribute to the state treasury and remained submissive to their control, they were happy. But as time went on, the nonproductive element of the population of their heartland increased, and greater and greater demands were made on the outlying regions for supplies. This escalating oppressiveness increased economic hardship and engendered hatred of the country's rule. It is no exaggeration to say that the economies of the outlying regions of the country were gradually destroyed in order to prop up an artificial economy in the country. This economic circumstance was no small factor in the weakening and eventual fall of the country."

What name(s) could would you insert here? Did you add any in your thoughts as you were reading? If so, does this description reveal something about countries across time, that may be applied to many?

All right, here's my citation for the quote: Freedman, D. N. (1996, c1992). The Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, "Mesopotamia, History of; History and Culture of Assyria, section I, "Socioeconomic Structure."

The nation originally referred to is the Assyrian Empire. I'm preaching on the book of Jonah, which has brought me to research the city of Nineveh and its parent, Assyria. What wonders one finds by digging!


Sunday, January 18, 2009

Drops of Hope

On Friday morning the alarm went off at 6:31am. I reached over and killed it, then entered into the blissful netherworld of semi-sleep, the kind we learn about in middle school when we tell our parents, "Just five more minutes!"

At about 6:45 the tasks of the day, armed with the battering ram of worry, breached the gates of my slumber-castle. I awoke and began my morning routine. I dismounted the bed, pulled on a few layers of clothes, trundled down the stairs, and opened the dog's food. The sound of popping plastic roused Sadie; the jangle of her collar announced the beginning of her morning routine.

I picked up her water-bowl and stalked through the dark kitchen, admiring the pale white of the frosted forest outside. The bowl touched the metal sink with a plunk, and I turned on the cold water tap.


A shiver passed through my soul. I tried the hot water tap. An equally articulate silence met my ears. Not even a cough, a sputter, or a spit. The dog bowl sat empty in the darkness. My admiration for the white frosty morning went--well, cold.

In the interest of keeping this blog family-friendly, I shall not record here the thought that went through my head. I turned on the kitchen light and read the outdoor thermometer. Its stoic black digital readout declared: -6 degrees. My suspicions were confirmed: frozen pipes, the bogeyman of homeowners throughout the northern states, had come to call this morning.

I checked the taps in the bathrooms and showers. All of them flowed freely. I thanked the Lord it was so; perhaps the isolation of the kitchen faucet meant that the ice had not spread far, and therefore would not burst our plumbing. My gratitude stopped there, however, for I realized that to access the kitchen pipes meant getting under the counter.

This corner of our house has been cold since we bought it. The draft that keeps our living room from being cozy comes from this precise spot. I suspect that the person who built the house only expected it to be used in the summer months; that or he ran out of materials and thought, "If I leave huge holes in the walls under the kitchen counter, no one will notice." Unless you're not a Yeti. Then you'll notice.

I pulled the dishwasher out from under the counter, which required disconnecting the water supply. (Mental note: get a 48-inch connector so I don't have to play Gumby to get it out.) A quick inspection with the flashlight revealed that I had found the secret location of the all-night poker parties played by our resident mice. There was also a picture-window sized hole in the drywall through which cold air poured in. I put a hand on the copper pipes that ran along the outside wall: frigid. Removing the insulation from behind the floor cabinets exposed me to a draft that made NASA wind tunnels look tame. No wonder the pipes had frozen.

I opened up the taps and crawled behind the cabinets. First with Sara's hairdryer, then with the heat gun she uses for melting candle wax, I blew hot air across the copper tubes. With hands and knees against the cold tile, I imagined the pipes breaking and water pouring out between studs in our poorly-insulated walls. Vision of dollar-signs danced in my head, while the tap remained ominously silent. After four or five rounds with the heat gun, I extracted myself from under the counter and sat back to reconnoitre the situation. That's when I heard it.


The kitchen faucet dripped to a slow rhythm, the clear cold tears falling with patient reserve. My drops of hope.

I turned the heat gun back on and massaged the pipes with its warm effluence. The drops got faster and faster, until they were a thin stream trickling into the metal basin. With unbound fervor the cascade thickened until it poured into the sink. Hallelujah! I felt like an oil speculator must feel when black gold comes gushing out of the ground.

I turned off the cold water tap, and felt another pang of fear. With only the hot water tap open, no more water flowed. It figures that the hot water pipe would stay frozen after the cold water had melted. Sigh. I spent another ten minutes under the counter, until both pipes felt warm to the touch. Still no hot water.

By now the dishwasher was out in the middle of the kitchen, the cupboards under the sink were emptied on the floor, and I had spent my dog-walking and breakfast time battling the arctic chill coming in through our wall. To get at the pipes further into the wall would require some major demolition--not the kind I want to begin on a Friday morning when it's -6 degrees out and we've got a baby on the way.

In desperate hope that maybe the blockage had occured near the junction with another pipe, I opened all the hot water taps in the house and let them run. After turning on the shower upstairs I came down the steps into the kitchen and heard it: the sweet sound of hot water running from the kitchen tap. Hallelujah again!

The magic temperature seems to be 0 degrees. The two previous nights, when the temperature reached about 5 degrees, we had no problems. So Saturday night, when the outside cold dipped to -9, we let the kitchen faucet drip until morning. And I added another quirk to the long list of this hobby house.

It looks like I'll have to prioritize fixing that wall behind the counter next spring. I don't want to do this again next year.


Friday, January 09, 2009

I Believe in Angels II

I had lost control of the car.

I don't have these moments often, these instants of recognition that I am out of control of my destiny. But on Wednesday morning, coming down Hemlock Hill a little too fast in the freezing rain, I lost control of the Mazda, and my life.

At one point in the skid, when my "turn into the skid" training kicked in, I thought I had it back. But then the car spun the other direction, faster, and I knew I had lost it.

In these moments I have heard that it's universal human experience to have one's life flash before one's eyes. Well, either I'm not human or it's not universal, because dollar signs and insurance premiums flashed before my eyes. Then I was on the side of the road.

In that stretch of the road there are ditches on both sides. And telephone poles. I saw one of the stoic brown posts awaiting my arrival, looking down with sad resignation as the right front side of the car slid across the wrong side of the road. Ten feet, five feet, two feet, then six inches. And then I stopped. With one front tire over the frozen-grass drop-off of the ditch, the Mazda sat still, six inches from mechanical and financial catastrophe, and I thanked the Lord. Thank you, Lord, for the invisible hands with a hard enough grip to keep the car on the road, and a soft enough grip to make me remember my mistake.

A car had followed me down the hill, driven by a wiser person. She did not skid or slip, but she stopped and backed up. I had left the car and surveyed the situation.

"Do you need a ride somewhere?" she asked.

"No," I said. Then, emboldened by adrenaline, "but if you can drive stick, maybe we can get my car back on the road."

She said she could drive standard, so she backed her car into a driveway and sat down in my driver's seat.

With her hands and feet in the car, and mine in the ditch and on the front bumper, we had the car on the road in less than a minute.

"Looks like it'll be a good day," she said as she relinquished the car to me again.

"Yes, it will," I said. I proferred my hand. "My name's Emrys. Thank you so much."

"I'm Diane. You're welcome."

I believe in angels. Praise the Lord for them. The ones with names--kudos to Diane--and the ones who remain unseen.


Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Iron Chef NY - Kumquats

For those who have seen Iron Chef America on the Food Network, you know that it is a challenge between two chefs to make a five course meal, each course including the "secret ingredient".  Well my youngest brother is in town visiting for a couple of days and came with two plastic grocery bags relatively full of kumquats.  I'd never seen or eaten a kumquat before but hey, around here, we don't turn down fresh produce in the middle of winter!

For those unaware (like I was before noon today), a kumquat is a small, golf-ball sized citrus fruit with really thin skin that you can eat and it's not yucky like eating an orange peel straight up. These kumquats came to our door from St. Simon Island, GA and I'm told grow year round. 

My Brother's initial inkling was to make marmalade.  Since he arrived on the eve of icy-yucky weather, and I didn't have all the makings for the marmalade, we went to plan B and consulted with google on kumquat recipes.  Thanks to the Kumquat Growers we found some pretty good recipes.  Here's the bowl-o-kumquats we started with: 

From here we went on to make kumquat pound cake - so good but so bad for you!

Kumquat, Oatmeal and White Chocolate Chip Cookies - also very yummy...

Ginger Candied Kumquats (we added ginger)

Ginger Candied Kumquat Cream Cheese Dip with Almond Crisp Crackers

and for dinner we had a Polynesian type pork stir fry with a kumquat-pineapple-teriyaki marinade with rice and mixed veggies.  I forgot to take a "before" picture of the finished dish, but here is what the marinade looked like 

and this is all that was left: 

And with all that - there are still quite a few kumquats left - looks like I could end up making marmalade yet!

(and so far it doesn't seem that kumquats have any labor inducing properties) :D

Monday, January 05, 2009

Christmas Hangover

An Epiphany Poem

In a bar called “The Stable,” owned by Prophet and King

A shepherd plays piano and lounge-angels sing

You beckoned me over and bought me a beer

Malted tradition, fermented good cheer


I have to admit, you didn’t have looks

Your cheeks had the pallor of a face stuck in books

But to woo a man lonely in seasons like this

Just say, “I’ll be with you,” and I hear pure bliss


So I sat down beside you and picked up the glass

Of bourbon, a babe who was kept by an ass

The liquor was love, a kind I’d not tasted

How easy, on this stuff, ‘t’would be to get wasted


The holiday hooch went down smooth, then a double

I turned from my thought that your looks would pose trouble

And saw with new eyes, filled with joy and adoring

As the lounge-angel sang with glorias soaring


I whispered sweet nothings into your ear

And you whispered back, great somethings so dear

Crazy we’d call them fifty-one weeks of the year

But by lenses of drink now so real did appear


Then burning with hope your hand had touched mine

And the spirit of spirits made my heart feel divine

Until my mouth leapt with confessions extreme

That you were the one all my dreams to redeem


And taking my hand, like a mother or friend

Who knew every nook, my beginning and end,

You drew me to dance ‘twixt the ox and the sheep

And lifted a veil between waking and sleep


We danced as if broadcasting joy to the world

Then into the arms of this lover I curled

While silent night settled, and holy night rang

Into your ear your praises I sang


Made strong with the liquid of courage and hope

I gazed in your eyes and felt the warm stroke

Of your flesh on my cheek, sensation of bliss

That pulled in my lips, and your mouth to kiss


Forgetting the world, discarding the pain

The what-ifs of doubt, the cultured and sane

I whisked you away, while you giggled in glee

Drunk with love, hanging on, my hay-loft to see


There in full human love and material touch

I held your divinity, and took of it much

That a lover would take, a roll in the hay

Where a world’s width protects ‘gainst the light of the day


With lounge-angels’ songs ringing soft in my head

You came with me, lay with me, there made our bed

With eager and desperate touching our hands

Joined sky with the earth in a great one night stand


But then a bright dawn, like a new year turned old

Crept up and stabbed me awake with its gold

Rinsing away the night’s jubilation

Beating my red eyes with day’s pugilation


The songs were all gone, reality spake

Back to the grind, time and money to make

A headache of loss pounded down on my brain

Grey after joy, after sunshine the rain


All for the best, I thought, better be real

Than dare let a pipe dream take life by appeal

To another swift fancy, another quick love

That lasts but a week, then succumbs to the shove


Of work and priorities concrete and stern

Maybe next year—next year I’ll learn

To drink not so much, and inflate all my hopes

And then be left hanging for dead on the ropes


When love-liquor fades and lovers declare

“What happens in Christmas—forever stays there”

So preparing for normalcy, the needs of the day

I rolled myself over to rise from the hay


And before I could breathe one more breath of the world

An epiphany struck, for there you were curled

In my remnants of clothes, smiling love without fear;

I whispered in shock, “O my God, you’re still here!"


Sunday, January 04, 2009

Occam's Razor

or, Rediscovering Winter for the Very First Time

Homer Simpson is now an American icon. One of the most recognized gestures in American (and all English-speaking) pop culture is the quote of "Doh!" when Homer slaps his forehead after doing something stupid. I just had occasion to rehearse my Homer Simpson impression, as we discover more about living in upstate New York in the winter.

Our Mazda, a 626 model with 166,000 miles on it, is supposed to last us to about 250,000 miles. All our mechanic friends tell us that the engine in the 1997 Mazdas are good ones. We expect (and believe we'll get) another 5 years out of it. In order to extend its life, we have made our recently-acquired Hyundai Elantra the primary car. The Mazda only gets about one workout a week now.

December brought us a wicked cold snap. Temperatures dropped into the teens. It wasn't weather in which you want to be broken down on the side of the road. Imagine my dismay, then, when one clear day in December I went to start up the Mazda and--drum roll--it didn't start. She sure cranked a lot, but didn't start.

The web diagnosis for lots of turnover but no firing is a set of three possibilities. First, it could be the starter (probably a medium-ticket item, but not disastrous). Second, it could be the fuel pump (a bit higher on the price list, but still worth it for another 90K or so). Third, it could be the spark plugs, and easy and relatively cheap fix.

You can see that at this point I'm starting to see dollar signs, and not in the way my mechanic sees them when I bring the car into the shop. I'm seeing them moving away from me. And a voice in the back of my mind is wondering if I can really expect those extra five years, after all.

What to do in a situation like this? Call up a friend of ours who is training to be a mechanic. Surely he will enjoy the sleuthing to find out what's wrong with our little Mazda. And we can pay him in brownies and ice cream. Sweet. So he comes over, hooks his truck's battery up to the Mazda, revs it for a while, and starts up our gold four-door. "It's the battery," he pronounces. Awesome. A new battery is only going to run us about a hundred bucks.

We put the new battery in, and drive the Mazda for a couple of days.

After another cold snap, I go out to start it up, and I get a lot of turnover, but no firing. Sigh. I did notice that after a few minutes of attempted starts, the "Empty" light came on the dashboard for the gas tank. But this car was the one that made it from Pasadena to the Getty Museum and back on "Empty," 'cause it gets 35 miles to the gallon. That couldn't be the problem here. No way. And I've still got options as to what's wrong. It's most likely a missing tooth on the starter cog (a common wear-out problem): on this the sugar-daddy mechanic and I agree.

I'm advised that if it's the starter, I ought to try changing the battery cable first, as a rotten cable can cause miscommunication between the battery and the starter and result in non-start. So I ask Sara to pick up a cable at Wally World. But is it the right length? After a phone conversation with our brownie-munching mechanic, I resolve that I have to get the car up on ramps, in order to get under it, in order to find the starter, in order to find out how long a battery cable I need, in order to change it and see if that's the real problem.

Today I borrowed a pair of ramps (from a relative of the ice cream grease monkey), and brought them home. However, the next step is to get the Mazda on the ramps. Very difficult when she doesn't start. So I maneuver the Hyundai in front of the Mazda, affix the jumper cables (bought to help solve this debacle), and let the Mazda suck some juice from the Hyundai for a while. Then I bring Sara out to rev the Hyundai while I try and start the Mazda.

No dice. It's 25 degrees out, and the Mazda's giving little response. Twice I get what sounds like the beginning of pistons firing, but it doesn't take. We shut down the Hyundai and I give it one more try, just for kicks. I hear one, two firings, but no start. "What if it's too low on gas?" Sara asks. I don't see how that's possible. That can't be the problem. But at this temperature I'm willing to try anything from having to get it towed into the shop. I go in and get our gasoline can out of the garage. When I open up the gas-cap, there's a mighty hiss, like the one you hear at the pump on a hot summer's day. I pour in the remaining gallon of fuel from the can, replace the cap, and pray a little prayer.

After one turn of the key and two pumps on the accelerator, the Mazda starts right up.


I mean, Praise the Lord!

Best we can figure is that the Mazda sat long enough in the descending cold that three things happened. First, the fuel settled in the line, farther away from the fuel injectors. Second, the temperature drop in the fuel tank (which was mostly air because it was below one-quarter full) created a relative vacuum which kept the fuel from getting into the fuel line on start-up. Third, it's just plain cold. And anyone with aging joints, like our Mazda has, will tell you that it's harder to get going in the cold.

Whatever the reason, I can't hide the embarrassing truth. We were searching all over the engine for a solution to one of the timeless (and simplest) problems of auto mechanics: we were out of gas. That was the real problem. Or--I start to wonder when I remember first seeing the "Empty" light come on--maybe the real problem is me. Hm. Which one's more expensive to fix?

You'd think I would have learned after the Wellington, New Zealand debacle. Doh!